La Paz Scenery
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La Paz Overview
Mexico's Cabo San Lucas may attract hordes of tourists, but it's nearby La Paz that offers an authentic provincial Mexican town experience. Located on a large bay on the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California), La Paz is the capital of Baja California Sur, a large peninsula some 900 miles south of the U.S. border. It's famous for its pastel neocolonial homes, palm-lined waterfront promenade, sandy beaches and fiery sunsets.
Once a simple spot for sport fishing (John Wayne and Bing Crosby were frequent visitors), La Paz has evolved into a staging area for ecotourists. Its proximity to the winter gray whale breeding grounds in Magdalena Bay, pristine islands of the Sea of Cortez, and Sierra de la Laguna mountains attracts whale watchers, kayakers, hikers, birders and scuba divers.
Still, exploration and adventure is nothing new to La Paz. Nearly five centuries ago, Hernan Cortes arrived here, followed by Sebastian Vizcaino and Jesuit missionaries. English and Dutch pirates raided treasure-filled Spanish galleons trapped in the La Paz Bay. In the early 19th century, La Paz became the capital of Baja after a hurricane wiped out nearby Loreto. Until the local oyster beds disappeared in the 1930's, the city prospered as a pearl center.
Of all Baja's cities, La Paz draws most heavily from the traditions of mainland Mexico. Many Pacenos are descended from mainlanders who came in the 19th and 20th centuries to escape political upheaval. Today, this university town has a large cultural center that features a theater for dance and music performances, plus whale and anthropology museums. The biggest holiday, pre-Lenten Carnaval, is a six-day party with parades, music, dancing and fireworks. Cortes' 1535 landing is reenacted during the annual Fiesta de la Paz in early May.
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Other Mexican Riviera Cruise Ports:
Acapulco • Cabo San Lucas • Catalina Island • Ensenada • Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo • La Paz • Manzanillo • Mazatlan • Monterey • Puerto Vallarta
Mexico's official language is Spanish. English is also widely spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The official currency is the peso, about 11 to the U.S. dollar. Though restaurants and hotels accept credit cards and traveler's checks, pesos are needed for everyday purchases. The best place for banks and currency exchange houses (casas de cambio) is on Calle 16 de Septiembre near the seaside boulevard known as the malecon.
Banks, like Bancomer and Citibank (16 de Septiembre and Esquerro) and Banco Santander and Banamex (Agustin Arreola and Esquerro) exchange currency from Monday to Friday until noon. Bancomer and Banamex have ATM's. Most exchange houses such as Tony Money Exchange (Calle 16 de Septiembre) are open evenings and Saturdays. If you need to change dollars for pesos on a Sunday, a hotel is the best bet.
Where You're Docked
Holland America, American Safari and Cruise West anchor 10 miles north of town at the cruise ship terminal at Pichilingue, near the mainland ferry terminal. Smaller ships like Lindblad's Sea Lion anchor in the Port of La Paz by the tourist pier and malecon, within easy walking distance to downtown.
Strolling from the Port of La Paz along the mile-long malecon is a La Paz tradition. The seaside walkway offers great bay views of sailboats and yachts as well as shops, cafes and restaurants. Four blocks inland is the city's main square, Plaza Constitucion, also known as Jardin Velasco, with its pink quartz gazebo, tiled walkways and cathedral. Nearby, the anthropology museum traces Baja's interesting history from pre-Columbian rock art to the Mexican American War. There's also a gallery for special exhibits by local artists (free admission, open 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. weekdays; 9 a.m. until 1 p.m. on Saturday, 5 de Mayo and Altamirano).
With its streets radiating from the waterfront in a classic grid, La Paz is best explored on foot. Buses leave from Pichilingue to Terminal Malecon at the corner of Paseo Obregon and Avenida Independencia hourly between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Cab fare from the cruise ship terminal at Pichilingue to downtown runs about $8.
To visit beaches north and south of the city, either take a cab (La Paz taxis don't have meters, so agree on the fare upfront) or rent a car, which starts at about $45 a day, excluding taxes and insurance. Budget, Dollar, Hertz and Thrifty have offices on Paseo Obregon. On weekends, public buses depart from the malecon terminal at noon and 2 p.m. for the beaches at Tecolote and Balandra and return at 5:30 p.m. for a $2.50 fare.
Los Islotes. This island rookery is home to thousands of California sea lions. If you're not already smitten watching these charismatic pinnipeds sun bathe, nurse and fight for prime real estate, you will be after joining them for a swim. Juvenile sea lions will summersault beside you and blow bubbles in your face. The only things to watch out for are the adult males (up to 600 pounds) and other snorkelers (seven-hour cruise ship excursion).
La Fuente. This small shop on the malecon is a culinary and cultural landmark. Ice cream aficionados line up for homemade treats in unusual flavors like capirotada, a bread pudding and chongos zamoranos, a sweet cheese pudding in syrup. Also delicious are fruit paletas or popsicles in exotic flavors like pitahaya (from the cactus; deep purple with seeds). The owners' son operates a branch in Cabo (Paseo Obregadon between Delgollado and Muelle).
Been There, Done That
Bahia Pulmo. Divers, snorkelers and kayakers love this protected reef that's home to over 200 fish species and a dozen types of coral. The reef and surrounding waters form Parque Marino Nacional Cabo Pulmo. Green turtles, manta rays and whale sharks are among the amazing residents (From May to September, Pepe's Dive Center and Cabo Pulmo Divers offer tours for both divers and non-divers (877-733-2252; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).
Windsurfing. Winds of 20 to 25 knot winds and curving shorelines have turned La Ventana and Los Barriles, about 45 minutes and an hour south of La Paz respectively, into world-class windsurfing destinations. Instructors at Baja Highwind Center at the Hotel Playa del Sold teach from November to March (800-223-5443; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Handicrafts. At Artesanias Cuauhtemoc, visitors can watch weavers at their looms, spinning cotton from the Santo Domingo Valley into rugs, blankets and clothing (Calle Abasolo 3315). Artisans create colorful ceramics at Ibarra's Pottery (Prieto 625, Monday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.). Atigua California (Paseo Obregon 220) stocks a wide selection of folk art and crafts.
The nicest beaches are located north and south of town. Here are a few of our favorites:
Best Beach for Families: Playa Balandra, 3.5 miles north of Pichilingue, is a shoal bay with protected inlets, shallow water, white sand beach and snorkeling at the south end. The often photographed Mushroom Rock perches most precariously atop a thin spire. Measuring about 12 feet in height and 10 feet in diameter at its top, the 18-ton icon has been righted twice in recent years -- once in the 1990's and again in the winter of 2005.
Best Beach for an Active Day: Playa Tecolote, 1.5 miles north of Balandra, is a long wide beach facing the lovely island, Espiritu Santo. Two restaurants, El Tecolote and Palapa Azul, offer seafood and cold drinks, and rent pangas, beach chairs, umbrellas, fishing tackle and canoes. A third eatery, La Concha, charges $10 for the use of chairs, palapas, showers and toilets (no charge if you buy food from the restaurant).
Best Secluded Beach: The best way to reach El Mogote, a seven-mile peninsula facing La Paz, is by kayak. Paddlers land at the mangrove at the south side and walk across a narrow isthmus to the northern bay frequented by dolphins. According to a local lore, those who eat the plums of the ciruelo here will never want to leave (Mar y Aventuras, Calle Topete 564, 800-355-7140, www.kayakbaja.com, $35 including lunch).
One of the highlights of a day trip to La Paz is sampling the local cuisine. Fortunately, affordable, local restaurants still outnumber chains. Meals can be widely found throughout the downtown area. Whatever you do, don't leave before trying the fresh seafood or homemade ice cream from La Fuente.
Casual, In-Town Joints: La Paz is paradise for fish taco fans. Among the best: Super Tacos de Baja California, famous for smoked marlin, sweet and sour shrimp, clam and scallop tacos (corner of Agustin Arreola and Mutualismo) and Mariscos El Carrito serving fresh seafood dishes (corner of Paseo Obregon and Morelos). El Quinto Sol is a vegetarian landmark with healthy fare like yogurt, granola, salads and vegetable juices (corner of Avenida Independencia and Belisario Dominguez). Air-conditioned Caffe Gourmet whips up coffee drinks and smoothies (Esquerro and 16 de Septiembre).
Gourmet Lunching: For some of the best lobster in town, hightail it to La Costa (Topete and Navarro). If you like views with your seafood and steak, try La Media Luna, a three-story palapa (between Iglesias and Salvatierra). Airy La Pazta puts an innovative spin on Swiss and Italian specialties like fondue and pasta (Calle Allende 36-B in the Hotel Mediterrane). La Terraza pairs Mexican and Italian dishes with great alfresco people watching (Paseo Obregon and Calle La Paz at Hotel Perla). For a romantic setting, bring your own catch to the beachside restaurant at Hacienda del Cortez, where the chef will toss your fish on the outdoor grill (formerly Engelbert Humperdinck's hotel; Calle Nuevo Reforma and Playa Sur).
Best for First-Timers: The big attraction in La Paz is the outdoors; Todos Santos, dubbed "Carmel of Baja" is a charming town half an hour from La Paz on the west coast. Populated with former Pacenos and Californians, the town boasts more than a dozen art galleries, including Charles Stewart, Galeria de Todos Santos, La Coronela Art Gallery and Galeria Logan (6.5-hour cruise ship excursion).
Best for Families: If you have a budding herpetologist in the family, head to El Serpentario Reptile Center and Cactus Nursery. The Serpentarium is home to a number of indigenous and foreign species of snakes, lizards, turtles and crocodiles. A naturalist shares information about the critters. Brave visitors can volunteer to hold some of the friendlier species (2.5-hour cruise ship excursion).
Best for Diving, Snorkeling and Kayaking: Coves, rocky islets and gorgeous sand beaches ring a 14-mile-long island Isla Espiritu Santo, about an hour boat ride from La Paz. Calm, protected waters make this island ideal for diving, snorkeling and kayaking. The water is a stunning turquoise thanks to the white sand sea floor. Baja Quest (612-123-5320) and Baja Expeditions (800-843-6967) offer day trips.
Staying in Touch
Internet cafes are reasonable and abundant, especially along the malecon. Most charge about $2 for 30 minutes. Locations include Katun Cafe (16 de Septiembre, corner of Paseo Obregon, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m, Monday to Saturday) and Cafe Internet (Madero and Constitucion, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Saturday).
For More Information
On the Web: www.visitmexico.com, www.lapaz-tourism.com
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--by Susan Jaques. Jaques is a Los Angeles-based writer whose favorite travel adventures are with her husband and teenage son and daughter. In addition to Cruise Critic, Jaques' articlse have appeared in the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Magazine.